By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Tony Gibson remembers the last time he was in Mountaineer Field.
It was not a pleasant memory.
It was Nov. 25, 2011, and the game was the Backyard Brawl.
The last time before that he had taken part in a Backyard Brawl it was a disaster, West Virginia playing Pitt for the right to face Ohio State in a game for the national title in 2007.
You will recall the day.
Pitt stunned the four-touchdown favored Mountaineers, beat them on their home field in a game they could not win, a game that drove Rich Rodriguez out of town and out of favor, taking most of his staff with him to Michigan, including Tony Gibson.
He was villianized by association, a turncoat who would go to Michigan for three years, then spend a year with another former WVU assistant, Todd Graham, at Pitt.
That brought him back home to Mountaineer Field for the Brawl in 2011, a game he would lose again, this time wearing the Pitt colors and falling 21-20 as he watched the Mountaineers sack the Panther quarterbacks 10 times.
“It was hard,” Gibson admitted on Wednesday, now back with the Mountaineers as safeties coach under Dana Holgorsen. “It was hard to come out of the tunnel on the other side, and there were a few fans who had some choice words for me.”
One can only imagine, for there has not yet been a lot of forgiveness for Rodriguez on the part of many Mountaineer fans, but at least there was nothing physical, nothing thrown at Gibson that day.
“It was clean fun,” he said.
Following that season at Pitt, a year Rodriguez sat out of coaching, he rejoined his mentor at Arizona for one year, but there was something inside him telling him this wasn’t the right place or the right time.
He had followed the Mountaineers in his absence.
“When I left after the 2007 season, I always watched what West Virginia was doing, and I always wanted to be a part of it again. I never thought I’d get the opportunity,” he said.
But last year the Mountaineer defense came undone and they needed not only experienced help rebuilding it but also needed someone who was a master recruiter, and Gibson certainly qualified there, having had a hand in bringing quarterback Denard Robinson to Michigan and Russell Shell to Pitt, the nation’s top running back prospect in 2011.
He was floored when he heard from WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who was the defensive coordinator at Pitt when he was there, wanting to talk about a job.
“When Coach Holgorsen and Coach Patterson gave me the opportunity, I jumped all over it and accepted the job and the rest is history.”
“Just to get back home and be part of West Virginia football again, it was very exciting and an opportunity I could not pass up,” he said.
Leaving Rodriguez, however, could not be easy. They had a long and close relationship.
“When you work with a staff for so long, it’s tough,” he said. “I have to make decisions that affect me not only professionally, but personally. I felt this was a great opportunity.”
Tony Gibson, a native of Van, was coming home. He could be near his son, who is attending Wesleyan, and the rest of his family.
It hit just how nice it was the last Sunday of recruiting.
“After the recruits left, I drove up to Uniontown to my mom’s house She cooked spaghetti and washed my clothes. Everything was good,” he said.
He had himself a house on a Morgantown golf course, a job he wanted and, what’s more, he could contribute immediately through recruiting, grabbing off a pair of recruits whom he had worked long and hard to sell on Arizona.
One was linebacker Brandon Golson, a player from Georgia Military College who had missed most of this past year with an injury, but the key player well may be Mario Alford, a 5-9, 175-pound speedster who could become the dynamic slot WVU needs to replace Tavon Austin.
“I’ve coached teams with guys who could fly … Stevie Slaton, Pat White, Noel Devine. This guy is in that same mold. He can absolutely fly,” Gibson said.
He wasn’t yet ready to call him another Austin, but he didn’t say he couldn’t be.
“I coached against Austin in that Pitt game. To put that tag on Mario right now is unfair to that kid. I don’t know if there was a better player in the country than Tavon. If he gets that good, that will be great for everyone,” he said.
It’s tricky bringing a player or two with you from one school to another after you’ve spent so much time selling them on the good points of the school you left.
“That’s why you have to go with guys you have a relationship with. Mario and Brandon, I had a great relationship with those guys,” Gibson said. “All I had to do was sell them on West Virginia and get them in to meet the staff. When they came on the visit and walked in the front door, I knew we had them. They loved it here; they fit into our schemes; it was pretty easy with those guys.
“Any time you change schools, situations change. I told them that it was not the same as it was. The head coach is still there at Arizona. The coordinator is still there, but the relationship you build with a kid recruiting him over a year and a half, that’s hard to replace.
“Once the process is over and they get here, the position coach is who they are going to deal with. Mario and Coach (Lonnie) Galloway got along great. Brandon and Coach Patterson had a great weekend together.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.